Tony Blair won Labour three elections and one day they might forgive him for it.
The former leader cuts a sombre figure these days, the Labour elder statesman few in Labour want to listen to anymore. The Conservatives would do well to perk up their ears, however, because if there is one thing Blair knows about it is electability. Last week, he concluded that Sir Keir Starmer had made Labour ‘politically competitive’ again and ‘completely changed the image certainly of the Labour leadership amongst the public’.
In his outings at Prime Minister’s Questions, the former Director of Public Prosecutions has been merciless in his cross-examination of Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister is not a details man and Sir Keir is steadily introducing the public to that fact.
He has shown himself to be canny, refusing to step into several traps Downing Street has laid for him. He has proven ruthless in putting the Corbynistas back in their box. On coronavirus, he has demonstrated how to oppose constructively but effectively. Compo is back down the allotment and a proper leader in charge again.
Sir Keir has two jobs: to make Labour respectable and then make it electable. The first order of business has been driving antisemitism out of the party. Labour can never undo what it did to British Jews and it may be that relations will never again be as strong and warm as they once were, but Sir Keir has made some important progress, not least in settling the defamation suit brought by party whistleblowers who were vilified for raising the alarm.
It does not make up for his choosing to sit in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet all those years, but it is a welcome indication that anti-Jewish racism is becoming less tolerated in Labour.
Electability will be an even greater challenge. Sir Keir is neither Corbyn nor Boris and, for now, that is enough, but when the British people come to decide on their next prime minister, they will be looking for more than just a savvy opposition leader. He will have to win back Red Wall Tory switchers, frustrated by Labour’s Janus-faced approach to Brexit, while retaining graduate, higher-income Remainers who have still to come to terms with our departure from the EU.
He has to earn back the country’s trust in Labour’s ability to govern, oversee a dynamic economy and keep us safe. Max Weber described politics as ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards’ and Sir Keir has an entire B&Q warehouse to get through before he can make Labour electable again.
He presents as more prime ministerial than his predecessor, certainly. Of course, a family of mole rats scrapping in a wheelie bin would be more prime ministerial than his predecessor, but the scale of improvement is impressive.
Even so, doubts niggle at the back of my mind. Is he the three Ls that curse otherwise talented Labour politicians: too left, too lawyerly, too London? A big part of any journey back to power will be realigning a party of big cities and university campuses with the values and instincts of the British public.
However, nothing stands in the way of Sir Keir’s path to Number 10 as stubbornly as Scotland. To win even a bare majority without making gains north of the Border, Sir Keir would have to pick up 124 seats in England and Wales. Gaining more than 100 seats to go from opposition to government is rare enough that it has happened only twice in post-war history: the 1945 Labour government and Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. If Sir Keir is to become Prime Minister, he needs a plan for making inroads in Labour’s lost heartlands.
Any plan needs to take account of the man nominally in charge of Scottish Labour. It pains me every time I have to write about Richard Leonard. Some politicians deserve to be told how hopeless they are but Leonard is not one of them. He’s a decent bloke and, though firmly on the Labour left, devoid of the sectarian poison that pumps through the veins of that particular faction.
But his leadership — a dumbfounding 982 days and counting — has been a low point for Scottish Labour, and this is a party once led by Henry McLeish. Never once has he challenged his party to be better, to go beyond its comfort zone, to trespass onto the radar of ordinary voters.
Scottish Labour isn’t so much a party of lions led by donkeys as donkeys led by Eeyore. Leonard is a former organiser for the GMB union and had he stayed in that job, he could have done more good in a day than he has managed to do in almost 1,000 days at the helm of Labour.
Sir Keir will be understandably reluctant to interfere in the Scottish party. Corbyn and John McDonnell’s endless interventions on the constitution not only did political harm, they placed a heavy strain on comradely relations. In an ideal world, Leonard would appreciate that he is a drag on his party’s fortunes and make way for new blood in the form of Anas Sarwar or Jenny Marra.
If Scottish Labour is not going to get better, then Sir Keir will have to go around it. Build a direct relationship with Scottish voters to pitch himself as a prime minister in waiting, the man who can beat the Tories, jump-start the economy and put fairness at the heart of government.
The biggest mistake he could make is following his predecessors into the constitutional cul-de-sac. Sir Keir should resist those voices in his party who will agitate for him to propose federalism, or yet more devolution, or some other clever scheme intended to shore up the Union but which inevitably ends up undermining it further.
Every time a Labour politician puts the constitution centre stage in their appeal to Scottish voters, they tell Scottish voters that the constitution should be centre-stage for them. Labour can’t win on these terms because it can’t out-nationalist the Nationalists; it must be the party of jobs, opportunities and security.
Sir Keir won’t pick up Commons seats in Scotland by beating Nicola Sturgeon because he won’t beat Nicola Sturgeon. The match-up is uneven, she has home court advantage and the Labour leader cannot afford to get bogged down in a war of attrition in one part of the country.
Since trying to defeat Sturgeon is futile, the next best option is to make her irrelevant. Do not engage her or the SNP on constitutional questions. Do not be drawn into hypotheticals about pacts or coalitions. Do not agree to fight on Sturgeon’s terms.
Fight on your own terms: Boris Johnson or Sir Keir Starmer — choose.
It’s an unpopular view but I consider Humza Yousaf a good man doing his best to make Scotland a safer place to live. I just wish he wasn’t so toweringly certain.
Among those warning that his Hate Crime Bill will squelch free speech are eminent lawyers, law lecturers, campaigners from across the spectrum and even his party’s former deputy leader.
But it’s not just free expression this Bill threatens; Yousaf is putting the SNP’s agenda in jeopardy. This Bill is so ill-conceived, so illiberal that, once the prosecutions begin and the unintended consequences are laid bare, even a majority SNP government would struggle to keep it on the statute books.
If it passes this parliament, the next parliament will busy itself repealing or extensively amending it. When the SNP hopes to be making the case for a second referendum, it will be fighting a rearguard action in defence of legislation that divides even the independence movement.
Yousaf’s good intentions won’t count for much then.
I don’t make a habit of agreeing with the Nationalists, but I wonder if they have a point about the BBC being out-of-touch with Scotland.
Over the weekend, this headline appeared on the Corporation’s news website: ‘Why have Scotland’s pubs opened before its gyms?’
It’s like they don’t even know us.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © UK Parliament by CC BY-NC 2.0.